October 6, 2015

Jack Link’s Missing Link: Company Pays $50K to Settle Claim of Ongoing Sexual Harassment

Posted in Discrimination, Employee Handbooks, Gender / Sex, Harassment, Harassment, Hostile Work Environment, Minnesota Human Rights Act, Sexual Harassment, Sexual Harassment, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , at 10:28 am by Tom Jacobson

A recently settled Minnesota Department of Human Rights charge against Jack Link’s Beef Jerky emphasizes the importance of follow-through when responding to sexual harassment allegations. According to the Department, Jack Link’s initially took the “right step” in disciplining the alleged harasser but then failed to monitor the situation, which included ongoing harassment.

Specifically, MDHR reports that shortly after being hired by Jack Link’s, a female employee’s supervisor made sexual advances toward her, called her “baby,” said she was beautiful, asked if she was single, chanted “pack baby pack,” and asked if he was too old for her. The Department also reports that although Jack Link’s initially disciplined the supervisor, the company then promoted him to be woman’s direct supervisor, after which he continued to harass the employee. Claiming she could no longer tolerate the work environment, the woman quit.

Thus, based on the MDHR’s findings, the missing link in Jack Link’s response was the lack of follow-through and monitoring. As noted by MDHR Commissioner Kevin Lindsey:

This is an unusual case in that the employer took the right step in originally disciplining the supervisor. The employer however undermined its efforts by not subsequently monitoring the actions of the alleged harasser. Employers need to maintain contact with the employee who has complained of sexual harassment to make sure that the measures that they have undertaken are actually working.

To settle the charge, Jack Link’s agreed to pay the victim $50,000.00 and to provide training on the Minnesota Human Rights Act and how to properly respond to sexual harassment allegations.

Generally speaking, employers must first take steps to prevent unlawful workplace harassment. But if, despite those efforts, an employee claims that harassment has occurred, employers must take prompt action to correct and stop that behavior. As the Jack Link’s case points out, this includes careful monitoring and follow-through to make sure the harassment does not continue or recur.

For more information about this article or about the harassment training, policy development, and related services I can provide, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2015 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz Cass, PA

August 26, 2015

Target Settlement Sheds Light on Disparate Impact Discrimination

Posted in Application Process, Background Checking, Disability, Discrimination, Disparate Impact, Disparate Treatment, Gender / Sex, Race, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , at 9:15 am by Tom Jacobson

By now, you’ve probably read or heard about Target Corporation’s agreement to pay $2.8 million to settle an EEOC discrimination charge. Unlike a “disparate treatment” case where the plaintiffs claim that an employer’s actions were motivated by discriminatory intent, this was a “disparate impact” case where the EEOC alleged that screening tests used by Target disproportionately excluded applicants on the basis of race and gender and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. So, what’s the difference between “disparate impact” and “disparate treatment” discrimination?

Disparate impact discrimination cases typically arise out of pre-employment tests, medical exams, background check policies and similar assessments that are used to screen candidates for a job or advancement within a company. The theory was first recognized by the United States Supreme Court in 1971 in the case of Griggs v. Duke Power Co. In that case, the Court noted that:

[Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] proscribes not only overt discrimination but also practices that are fair in form, but discriminatory in operation. The touchstone is business necessity. If an employment practice which operates to exclude [a protected class] cannot be shown to be related to job performance, the practice is prohibited.

The Griggs Court also stressed that good intentions do not matter, for “[G]ood intent or absence of discriminatory intent does not redeem employment procedures or testing mechanisms that operate as ‘built-in headwinds’ for minority groups and are unrelated to measuring job capability.”

Thus, in a disparate impact case, the focus is not on evidence that the employer intended to discriminate.  Rather, the focus is on statistics. If the statistics show that the employer’s screening practice — no matter how innocuous on its face — has a substantial adverse impact on a protected group, the employer must show that the practice is job-related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity. The employer might still lose the case if there is evidence that the company refused to adopt an alternative employment practice that would have served the employer’s legitimate interests without creating a disparate impact on a protected class.

In contrast, in a disparate treatment case, the focus is on evidence of the employer’s intent. If the evidence shows that the employer intentionally discriminated against an employee or applicant on the basis of a protected classification, the employer will be held liable for unlawful employment discrimination based on the disparate treatment theory.

In addition to paying nearly $3 million to settle the EEOC case, Target also agreed to several non-monetary terms, such as:

  • Not using the assessments again as part of its exempt-level employment selection procedures;
  • Changing its applicant tracking systems to ensure that the collection of data is sufficient to assess adverse impact;
  • Performing a predictive validity study for all exempt assessments currently in use and any new assessments the company expects to use;
  • Monitoring its assessments for exempt-level professional positions for adverse impact based on race, ethnicity and gender; and
  • Annually providing the EEOC with a detailed summary of the studies and the adverse impact analysis conducted.

As the Target case shows, even seemingly innocent employment screening practices can violate Title VII and other anti-discrimination laws. Therefore, employers who use such devices should carefully evaluate their potential adverse impacts before using or continuing them.

For more information about this article, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2015 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz Cass, PA

June 15, 2015

Supreme Court Rules for EEOC in Abercrombie & Fitch Dress Code Case

Posted in Application Process, Discrimination, Dress Code, Grooming, Reasonable Accommodation, Relgious Discrimination, Religion, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 tagged , , , , , , , , at 10:36 am by Tom Jacobson

Employers must now use more caution when their dress codes clash with their employees’ religious beliefs. That is the result of the United States Supreme Court’s June 1, 2015 ruling in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.

The case arose after Samantha Elauf applied for a job with Abercrombie. Elauf is a practicing Muslim who, consistent with her understanding of her religion’s requirements, wears a headscarf known as a hijab. Abercrombie had a “look policy” that prohibited employees from wearing “caps” as being too informal for work attire. The policy did not define “caps.”

After an interview, the assistant store manager rated Elauf as qualified to be hired, but she was concerned that the headscarf would violate the company’s “look” policy. Elauf, however, never requested an exception to that policy so that she could wear the hijab. The assistant manager asked her district manager for guidance, and she told the district manager that she believed Elauf wore the headscarf because or her faith. The district manager said the headscarf would violate the look policy, and he directed the assistant store manager to not hire Elauf.

The EEOC then sued Abercrombie on behalf of Elauf on the basis that the company’s refusal to hire Elauf violated the religious discrimination prohibitions of Title VII. The trial court ruled in favor of the EEOC (See Abercrombie & Fitch Dressed Down over Hijab in Religious Discrimination Case). The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed on the basis that because Elauf never provided Abercrombie with actual notice of her need for accommodation of her religious belief, Abercrombie could not be liable under Title VII.

On further appeal, the Supreme Court agreed with the EEOC and trial court. Specifically, the high court ruled that to prove a claim of religious discrimination in the workplace, an applicant need only show only that his/her need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision, not that the employer knew of the need. An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.

Thus, even if an employee or applicant has not requested a religious accommodation (for example, a dress code or grooming policy exception, schedule modification, etc.), an employer must not use that person’s religious faith as a factor in making decisions about the employee or applicant. In addition, employers should keep their dress and grooming codes somewhat flexible to allow for the accommodation of affected religious beliefs.

For more information, see the EEOC’s publications, Questions and Answers: Religious Discrimination in the Workplace and Fact Sheet on Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities, or contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2015 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz Cass, PA

October 16, 2014

Workplace bullying: on the job with Scut Farkus

Posted in Bullying, Bullying, Cyber Bullying, Discrimination, Harassment, Harassment, Hostile Work Environment, Workplace Violence tagged , , , , at 10:30 am by Tom Jacobson

Scut Farkus

Scut Farkus – future workplace bully?

In the holiday classic A Christmas Story, playground bully Scut Farkus torments Ralphie Parker until Ralphie pummels Scut after one too many snowballs to the face. We cheer for Ralphie because he’s the good kid who takes a stand against Scut’s relentless bullying. But what happens when Scut gets a job? What is the law on workplace bullying?

I recently attended a community conversation about workplace bullying. The discussion confirmed that there is much confusion about the topic. The debate is no doubt fueled by recent media attention and legislative attempts to regulate bullying.

Those efforts have been partially successful in the school setting. For example, the State of Minnesota earlier this year passed the Safe and Supportive Schools Act. This new law defines and regulates bullying in the state’s public and charter schools. However, workplace bullying is neither defined nor prohibited by any state or federal law.

Even if the conduct creates a hostile work environment, bullying alone is not unlawful unless the behavior violates some other established law. Recent court decisions emphasize how difficult it is to turn garden-variety bullying into a legal claim.

For example, in Johnson v City University of New York, an employee claimed that a co-worker’s bullying violated Title VII. The judge last month threw out the case, saying:

Victims of non-discriminatory bullying at the workplace, like those treated unfairly for reasons other than their membership in a protected class, must look outside Title VII to secure what may be their fair due. The Court does not condone bullying, but it cannot read Title VII to protect its victims unless the bullying reflects discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals last year overturned a $270,000.00 Ramsey County jury verdict in favor of an employee who reported being bullied by his boss (see Absey v. Dish Network, LLC). Because Minnesota has no anti-workplace bullying law, the plaintiff’s legal theory was actually based on Minnesota’s whistle-blower law, Minn. Stat. § 181.932. In reversing the jury’s verdict, the Court of Appeals ruled that the plaintiff failed to prove that the employer’s adverse action against him was because he complained about his boss.

Bullied employees have found some limited success in the courts. In one Indiana case, Raess v. Doescher, an employee won a lawsuit based on his employer’s behavior, which the court described as “aggressively and rapidly advanc[ing] on the plaintiff with clenched fists, piercing eyes, beet-red face, popping veins, and screaming and swearing at him.” This conduct could certainly be characterized as “bullying,” but the plaintiff won his case not because he was “bullied” but because the jury found the employer’s conduct to be an assault under Indiana law.

These cases underscore the current reality that when employees are confronted by a Scut Farkus-like co-worker, there are no laws specifically defining or prohibiting workplace bullying. However, if the bully’s conduct is egregious enough, there already exist other legal claims that could provide recourse. In addition to assault and whistle-blower claims, it is conceivable that under the right set of facts, bullied employees could successfully sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence or other wrongs based on another employee’s bullying behaviors. And, when bullying is based on employees’ protected class status, they may have viable claims under Title VII and/or comparable laws.

But rather than litigation and legislation, perhaps the better solution is to curb such behaviors through better employment policies and practices that encourage and model respectful working relationships.

For more information about this article, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2014 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

October 9, 2014

Employment retaliation: the high cost of revenge

Posted in Discrimination, National Origin, Race, Retaliation, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 tagged , , , , , , at 7:40 pm by Tom Jacobson

Kinkead 10-10-14

While seeking revenge, dig two graves; one for yourself. Douglas Horton

Most laws granting rights to employees include anti-retaliation provisions intended to protect the employees who exercise those rights. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is no exception. Buffalo, MN based Izza Bending Tube & Wire and Wells Fargo & Co. recently learned that lesson the expensive way. That is, via costly settlements of EEOC employment retaliation charges.

Both cases were investigated by the Minneapolis, MN area office of the EEOC. In the Wells Fargo case, the EEOC determined that an employee reported to the company’s human resources department that she was being subjected to differential treatment based on her race and national origin. The agency also found that the employee’s supervisor told her not to speak Spanish during her non-duty time. Shortly after the employee’s report, the EEOC found, Wells Fargo disciplined and then terminated the employee for practices other employees regularly engaged in without discipline. This, the EEOC concluded, violated the employment retaliation provisions of Title VII.

To resolve the charge, Wells Fargo agreed to pay $295,000.00. The company also agreed to:

  • Conduct training on the laws prohibiting employment discrimination, with special emphasis on employment retaliation and English-only speaking requirements;
  • Distribute to all employees an annual e-mail affirming its commitment to diversity, multilingual ability and the use of languages other than English in the workplace;
  • Report to the EEOC all allegations of discrimination or employment retaliation annually for three years.

In the Izza case, the EEOC alleged that a manager first instructed an employee to not hire a black temporary worker for a permanent position and then told the employee to get rid of him because of his race. The EEOC further alleged that after the employee filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC, she was laid off and then terminated in retaliation. Izza settled the case by paying $45,000.00 and agreeing to train employees and report any retaliation complaints to the EEOC.

The main takeaway from these cases is that retaliating against employees who exercise their Title VII rights is by itself a violation of Title VII, and resolving those cases can be extremely expensive. The same holds true for employees who exercise their rights under the Minnesota Human Rights Act and many other employment laws. Moreover, preserving access to the justice system by fighting employment retaliation under Title VII is one of the EEOC’s 2013-2016 Strategic Enforcement Plan priorities. Therefore, employers would be wise to make prohibiting employment retaliation one of their HR priorities. Or, start digging.

For more information about this article, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2014 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

October 6, 2014

Disciplining off-duty conduct: why the NFL model doesn’t work in the real world

Posted in Application Process, Arrest records, Background Checking, Ban the Box, Child Abuse and Neglect, Conviction Records, Credit Checks, Criminal History, Discrimination, Fair Credit Reporting Act, Interviewing, Minnesota Human Rights Act, Negligence, Negligent Hiring, Negligent Retention, Negligent Supervision, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 tagged , , , , , , , , at 4:15 pm by Tom Jacobson

Police light122811Imagine that you’re an HR director and a security-cam video supposedly depicting one of your key employees knocking out his girlfriend in an elevator ends up on YouTube for the world to see. Or, imagine that one of your key employees is indicted for abusing his son after photos allegedly depicting the boy’s wounds from his dad’s switch go viral. Imagine further that neither incident occurred on your company’s premises or while the employee was on the job.

Sound familiar?

Fortunately, most of us never have to deal with employees who make headlines like Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson (see Ray Rice Terminated by Team, Suspended by NFL after New Violent Video, CNN Sept. 16, 2014; Minnesota Vikings Reverse Course, Suspend Adrian Peterson, ABC News Sept. 17, 2014). However, all employers must occasionally confront the challenge of what to about an employee’s off-duty misconduct.

With the suspensions of Rice and Peterson fresh in our minds, it may seem like an easy solution: suspend or fire any employee who is charged with or convicted of a crime that we find repulsive or contrary to our organization’s values. That may work in the NFL, but for the rest of the working world, it’s not that simple. There are many laws that limit how employers may use such information.

One example is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Among other things, this law prohibits racial discrimination in employment. Applying Title VII, the courts have said that the overly restrictive use of criminal background information in the workplace is unlawful because it disproportionately excludes certain racial groups from employment.

So, what is too restrictive? There is no hard and fast rule, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces Title VII, has provided some guidance (see Background Checks: What Employers Need to Know). Specifically, the EEOC first stresses that employers who obtain criminal history information about employees or applicants must do so uniformly: doing it for only members of protected classes will violate Title VII.

The EEOC also notes that once such information is obtained, it must be used in a non-discriminatory way:

  • The same standards must be applied to everyone.
  • A policy or practice must not exclude people with criminal records if the policy or practice significantly disadvantages individuals with a protected characteristic and does not accurately predict who will be a responsible, reliable, or safe employee. As stated by the EEOC, the policy or practice is unlawful if it has a “disparate impact” on protected employees and is not “job related and consistent with business necessity.”
  • Be prepared to make exceptions for problems potentially caused by disabilities.

To determine whether a person’s criminal history is “job related and consistent with business necessity” under Title VII, employers need to consider: the nature and gravity of the offense or conduct; the time that has passed since the offense or conduct and/or completion of the sentence; and the nature of the job held or sought (see Enforcement Guidance on the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, EEOC April 25, 2012).

Another federal law, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, also applies when employers hire a third party to conduct background checks. The FCRA includes requirements about what employers must do before obtaining such information and what they must do before and after taking adverse action based on the reports obtained. The FCRA is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, which has published a summary of employers’ obligations under the law (see Using Consumer Reports: What Employers Need to Know, FTC Jan. 2012).

For Minnesota employers, the state’s “Ban the Box” law (Minn. Stat. Sect. 364.021) presents another challenge. Like Title VII, this law does not prevent an employer from considering a person’s criminal history when making work-related decisions. It does, however, restrict when that information may be obtained or used. Specifically, the law prohibits employers from inquiring into or considering criminal records or history until after applicants have been selected for an interview or, if there is no interview, after a conditional offer of employment is made.

With all of these restrictions, why even bother looking into someone’s off-duty conduct?

Despite these challenges, it’s still good business to hire and keep employees who fit well with the organization. And, there are  risk-management reasons for doing background checks.

For example, if a Minnesota employer does not check an applicant’s background thoroughly enough, it can be held liable for negligently hiring someone who later harms another. That was the situation in the case of Ponticas v. K.M.S. Investments where a landlord was held responsible for its property manager’s sexual assault of a tenant.  The landlord had only done a cursory background check on the manager, and a better pre-hire investigation would have revealed the manager’s history of violent crime.

Similarly, if employees start to exhibit behaviors suggesting that they might harm others, their employers can be held liable for failing to protect those who are eventually harmed.  The Minnesota Supreme Court recognized this concept in the case of Yunker v. Honeywell, where an employee murdered a co-worker after a number of post-hire incidents suggested that the employee had violent propensities.

Now imagine again that video or indictment on your desk. Or imagine that your background check has revealed some other off-duty misconduct that you wished you never knew about. Know that the NFL’s model simply does not apply in the real world. Employers facing these situations should think carefully and not automatically leap to the conclusion that the employee should suffer some work-related consequence in addition to whatever sanction s/he got elsewhere.

For more information about this article, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2014 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

May 9, 2014

Legislative update: MHRA jury trials and Women’s Economic Security Act advance

Posted in Care of Relatives Leave, Court Trial, Discrimination, Domestic violence, Family and Medical Leave Act, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Family Leave, Jury Trial, Leaves of Absence, Nursing Mothers, Parenting Leave, Remedies, Sick Leave, Sick or Injured Child Care Leave tagged , , , , , , , , , , at 9:26 am by Tom Jacobson

Both houses of the Minnesota Legislature on May 8, 2014 took action to advance legislation which, if signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton, will have significant impacts on Minnesota employers and employees.

First, with a 43-24 vote the Senate approved the Women’s Economic Security Act (HF2536) which, among other things, would expand parenting and sick leave rights. For more information on this bill, see Women’s Economic Security Act Passed by MN House.

Then, with a 79-51 vote the House approved the Senate’s amendment to the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) (SF 2322). This amendment would add the right to a jury trial as a remedy under the MHRA. For more information on this bill, see Minnesota Senate Adds Jury Trial Right to Minnesota Human Rights Act.

For more information about this legislation, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2014 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

May 6, 2014

MN Senate adds jury trial right to Human Rights Act

Posted in Court Trial, Discrimination, Jury Trial, Remedies tagged , , , , , , at 9:14 am by Tom Jacobson

SF 2322By changing a single sentence in the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), the Minnesota Senate on May 1, 2014 passed a bill which, if it becomes law, will significantly change the way MHRA disputes are decided in the courtroom.

Currently, the law (Minn. Stat. § 362A.33, subd. 6) provides that, “Any action brought pursuant to this chapter shall be heard and determined by a judge sitting without a jury.” However, the Senate’s version (SF 2322), which passed on a 55-0 vote, would change that sentence to read, “A person bringing a civil action seeking redress for an unfair discriminatory practice or a respondent is entitled to a jury trial.”

The change would be significant, for it would drastically change the way MDHR cases — such as claims for employment discrimination — would be litigated. Generally speaking, jury trials are far more expensive and complicated than are cases tried to a judge alone. A jury of six people can also be far more difficult to predict than a single judge. The change would, however, make state law consistent with its federal counterpart (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), which already allows for jury trials.

For more information about this article, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2014 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

June 26, 2013

Supreme Court issues employer-friendly decision defining “supervisor”

Posted in Discrimination, Employee Handbooks, Harassment, Harassment, Hostile Work Environment, Sexual Harassment, Sexual Harassment tagged , , , , , at 9:34 am by Tom Jacobson

IMG_5577Even though they’re over two centuries old, the words of United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall in Marbury v. Madison hold true today — it is the court’s job to say what the law is. Because of that power, we rely on the court to interpret the laws that affect our everyday personal and work lives. This week was no exception, as the court issued its long-awaited decision in Vance v. Ball State University.

Vance is a very important case for employers and employees because it defines who is a “supervisor” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It’s a significant issue because in harassment cases under Title VII, an employer’s liability depends to some extent on whether the harasser is a supervisor.

In previous cases, the Supreme Court said that if the harasser is a co-worker, the employer is liable if the employer is negligent in controlling the work environment, but if the harasser is a supervisor, then the employer’s liability depends on whether or not the harassment resulted in tangible adverse employment action against the victim.  If so, the employer is strictly liable. If not, the company may avoid liability by proving that it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct harassment and that the victim unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities provided.

The unanswered question, which the high court answered in Vance, was just who is a supervisor under Title VII? In a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the court answered the question by ruling that for the purposes of Title VII, supervisors are only those employees who are empowered by the employer to take tangible employment action against the victim.  The court rejected a broader definition of supervisor, which would have included anyone with authority to direct and oversee the victim’s work.

What you need to know: The Vance decision is a victory for employers because it limits the number of employees who are considered “supervisors” under Tittle VII, and that, in turn limits the circumstances under which strict liability will attach. It is not, however, a green light to allow unlawful workplace harassment. Therefore, employers must still be proactive in taking steps to prevent and correct such behavior, including policy development, training and prompt and effective responses to harassment allegations.

For more information about this article, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2013 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

May 17, 2012

Sex-based Hostile Work Environment Claims Clarified by MN Supreme Court

Posted in Discrimination, Gender / Sex, Harassment, Hostile Work Environment, Sexual Harassment tagged , , , , , , at 11:58 am by Tom Jacobson

The term “hostile work environment” is one of the most commonly misunderstood terms in the world of employment law. For example, I’ve heard many employees complain that they work in a hostile environment because their boss is a jerk or because their co-workers are mean to them. While such an environment may indeed be hostile, hostility is generally not a sufficient basis for a legal challenge unless it is based on a person’s protected classification, such as his or her sex.

But even when it comes to sex-based hostile work environment claims, there has been a lingering question: If a person is targeted with hostility because of his/her sex, but the hostility is not sexual in nature (for example, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sexually motivated physical contact or other verbal or physical conduct or communication of a sexual nature), may the sex-based hostility be the basis of a hostile work environment claim under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA)?  The Minnesota Supreme Court has now answered that question in the affirmative.

In the case of LaMont v. Independent School District #728, which the Court decided on May 16, 2012 Carol LaMont was employed as a custodian by Independent School District #728 in Elk River, MN. LaMont was supervised by a male, Doug Miner, who she claimed made frequent comments about his negative view of women in the workplace. LaMont also claimed that Miner treated men and women differently regarding certain terms and conditions of employment. She did not allege that Miner’s conduct was sexual in nature.  Relying on the MHRA, LaMont sued the school district based on a hostile work environment sex discrimination theory.

As a threshold issue, the Court had to decide whether a hostile work environment claim under the MHRA can be based on harassing conduct that is based on sex, even if the offending conduct is not sexual. To reach its decision, the Court first noted that the MHRA’s definition of discrimination “does not limit claims of a hostile work environment to sexual harassment.”  The Court then noted how in prior cases, it had recognized that “sexual harassment is just one form of  hostile work environment that constitutes sex discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment.” Finally, the Court found support from federal cases interpreting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Ultimately, the Court said:

For the foregoing reasons, we conclude that the MHRA permits a hostile work  environment claim based on sex. We hold that verbal and physical harassment directed at an employee because of her sex may constitute discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment.

Turning then to the specific allegations in the LaMont case, the Court found that even though these types of claims can be brought under the MHRA, Lamont’s allegations were not enough to support a claim under the law.

What you need to know:  Even though Lamont ultimately lost, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in her case that a hostile work environment claim under the MHRA can be based on harassing conduct that is based on sex, even if the offending conduct is not sexual. This makes it even more important for employers to adopt and enforce policies which prohibit sex discrimination.

For more information about this article, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2012 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

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